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May 26, 2015

Ravishingly Retro

John Griffiths

Spring may have finally sprung in Manhattan, but not so long ago, says Annaleigh Ashford — whose character on Masters of Sex knows a thing or two about unmentionables — "The city's chill was so unbearable, I went old-school and wore long underwear!"

Ashford doesn't need to don long johns to show she's an adorable throwback type. On Masters of Sex, Showtime's drama of carnal knowledge, repression, and changing mores in the 1950s, she plays Betty Dimello, a savvy prostitute who makes an ideal subject for the controversial sex study led by Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen).

"She's an intensely intelligent woman born in the wrong time," says Ashford of her fact-inspired character. "She uses her strengths as power."

One could say the same of Ashford. A gorgeous blonde with a wiseacre wit, her vibe is somewhat Judy Holliday.

At four, she entertained her parents by impersonating Saturday Night Live characters Wayne and Garth. After shining in dance school at seven, she dazzled as a teen in local productions of Ruthless! and Anything Goes.

Her big break came when she understudied as good witch Glinda in the first national tour of Wicked in 2005.

Since then, she has costarred or headlined on Broadway in Legally Blonde: The Musical, Catch Me If You Can, Hair and Kinky Boots, notching a Tony nomination for the latter.

On screen, she's sashayed as a snob in Sex and the City: The Movie (her first flick), played a wannabe Marilyn Monroe on Smash and vamped as a rape-accusing con in an episode of Law & Order: SVU.

Next up: Stereotypically You, a relationship comedy with Aaron Tveit and Kal Penn.

Ashford also performs with her cabaret act, "Lost in the Stars," an eclectic set that offers nods to singers from Judy Garland to Donna Summer.

For the second season of Masters (season three begins in July), Betty — having landed a rich husband — went a little Marilyn herself, dying her hair platinum. A grateful Ashford says, chuckling: "Thank God, the Lord gave me strong hair."

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